The population bomb is defused

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted October 18, 1999

Some of the enthusiasm seems to have ebbed from the birthday celebration.

Last week -- on Tuesday Oct. 12, supposedly, though the selection of a precise date was a bit arbitrary -- the folks who attempt to estimate world population assure us an infant was born, who became the earth's 6 billionth living human being.

Plans were for outfits like the Sierra Club to ballyhoo this event as a further sign that we are racing ever more rapidly towards our own destruction as a species, further proof that we need to move a lot faster in authorizing governments to use much stronger measures to -- well, to do whatever it is governments do to stop folks from having so many children, since excess population, as we all know, causes air pollution, thirst, famine, disease, global warming, the destruction of the rain forests, and the extinction of who knows how many yet-to-be-discovered species of obscure bugs and slime molds, not to mention causing acne, halitosis, and sunspots.

After all, it took 123 years -- from 1804 to 1927 -- for the world population to double from 1 billion to 2 billion people. But it took only 33 years (1927 tom 1960) to add another billion and only 14 years (1960 to 1974) to grow from 3 to 4 billion. It's geometric!

But a slight problem arose on the way to the great auto-da-fe.

First, the "birthday" of the 6 billionth child had to be delayed a few years. Turns out fertility rates have been falling all by themselves. Any rate below 2.1 means a population isn't even replacing itself, and America's rate is already down to 1.99.

Yes, the world fertility rate remains at 2.71 -- largely because children are thought of as additional helping hands, rather than as economic burdens, in impoverished rural economies. But world-wide, that's down from an average of 5 children per woman as recently as the early 1950s.

And -- even more frustrating to those seeking an excuse for strong central governments to impose harsh controls -- it turns out the true answer to the population "problem" is not some form of infanticide combined with careful government rationing of limited resources, but rather prosperity and free-market capitalism, which have demonstrated a resilient tendency to locate ever more resources, and to distribute them so efficiently that life expectancies and standards of living have actually gone up, not down.

Nations with the lowest rate of births -- without the kind of draconian limits on family size espoused by those past masters of centralized lanning, the Communist Chinese -- turn out to be free economies like Germany, Italy, Greece, and the Czech Republic, with current reproduction rates all falling between 1.15 and 1.30. Nations with the highest fertility rates remain those that still live under various forms of feudal kleptocracy or collectivist tyranny, including Uganda, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Angola -- where rates still run from 6.80 to 7.25, in part because parents in such benighted cultures simply don't expect most of their children to live.

But even at those rates, world population growth is down from 2 percent a year in 1960 to 1.3 percent today, and is expected -- even by the United Nations -- to drop below the no-growth level of 0.3 percent by the year 2050.

Yes, world population may still climb to 8 billion in the next 50 years -- an increase of about 33 percent. But that will have a far smaller impact than the tripling of the world population from 1927 to 1999. And at that point, it actually appears human population could start to fall.

"Many people would be surprised to learn that the growth rate is declining," U.N. demographer Thomas Buettner told the Los Angeles Times last week. "People think it's out of control, that the population is growing like cancer. But if you look hard, you see many signs ... that stabilization will occur, or go into the negative. People are controlling their own lives and this has impacts on the number of children we have. We have virtually no country anymore that has not started at least a modest fertility decline."

How about that. The "Population Bomb": It's another dud.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His new book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available at $21.95 plus $3 shipping through Mountain Media, P.O. Box 271122, Las Vegas, Nev. 89127. The 500-page trade paperback may also be ordered via web site, or at 1-800-244-2224. Volume discounts available.

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